- Creator: Alec Berg and Bill Hader
- Starring: Bill Hader, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root, Henry Winkler, Anthony Carrigan
Even in an episode where the plot doesn’t progress significantly, Alec Berg and Bill Hader still manage to find room for some really great character development. Such is the case with “Ben Mendelsohn”, where the status quo largely remains unchanged from the beginning of the episode to the end. And that’s ok! For as exciting as it can be, not every episode needs to seismically shake up the world to feel like an authentic version of Barry.
If nothing else, this week’s episode proves once again that Henry Winkler is doing the best work of his storied career on this show. Still reeling from Barry’s threats against his family at the end of last week, Winkler spends the bulk of the episode in a fog of disbelief. Much of his scenes consist of Gene just staring off blankly into the middle distance, still processing what his life has become. His conversation with Barry, where he blames himself for Moss’s death as he replays all the ways his life could have developed differently, is a small but understated bit of pathos that Winkler nails to perfection. Gene is in an unwinnable situation with Barry; no matter how much he begs and promises to keep Barry’s secret, it doesn’t seem like Barry will ever let him live a normal life. Barry may have gotten him a bit part – with a line! – in his new role on the TV show, but a return to acting is dead last in the list of concerns in Gene’s life right now.
And Barry is just delusional enough to think that a small part in a show, run by someone that still hates Gene for throwing hot tea in his face years ago, will be enough to fix everything. It’s frightening to see Barry so fully convinced that everything is fine now, though perhaps the aforementioned scene will serve as a wake-up call for him. He seems content to move on, turning down NoHo Hank in his attempt to fix the Bolivian situation, and refuting Fuches, until Gene blows up and storms off the set (which likely won’t help Gene’s standing in Hollywood going forward, not that he cares).
I truly don’t know the level to which I’m supposed to be emotionally invested in Hank and Cristobal’s doomed relationship this year. The show has unfortunately never really treated Cristobal as a real character with depth and wants and interiority, so it’s hard for me to care too much whether he lives or dies. Sure, it would crush Hank to lose someone that truly understands him, but it’s hard to be heartbroken over a character whose primary function is comic relief (great as Anthony Carrigan always is). Though Hank does display some tactical competency when he calls Fuches to come and take the fall for the latest Chechen-Bolivian spat. The only problem is that Fuches has grown accustomed to life in the middle of nowhere, embracing life as a Chechen goat herder, even cohabitating with an unnamed woman. But how much will his brief phone call with Barry, wherein he stretches the truth just a bit and professes that he and Gene have worked things out, spur Fuches to return to LA? Clearly the idea that Barry can derive happiness from anyone but Fuches doesn’t sit well with him, no matter how much time has passed and how dangerous Barry can be.
What I’m most worried about though is Barry’s fraught reputation with Sally and her co-workers. Barry has become adept at keeping his hitman life hidden, but what happens when the life he’s built, a life he seems genuinely happy with, crumbles around him because of his public actions? I don’t think Berg and Hader are trying to make some kind of a grand statement on shitty behavior of men in Hollywood, but he’s at least making Elsie Fisher’s Katie nervous enough to act weird on the press junket when asked about him.
In my review of last week’s episode, I mentioned the gut punch that Hollywood had dealt Sally when a shallower version of her show had been produced. This week the hits keep coming, when her nervousness around exposing herself and the prospect of being asked some tough personal questions about the show all turn out to be for naught. Berg and Hader frame the press junket montage as one that could only come from personal experience, as Sally’s asked the same meaningless questions that only tangentially relate to her show. The gag that gives the episode its title is an inspired bit of character and situation-based comedy (though I think Sally may be onto something; I would absolutely tune in to see Ben Mendelsohn as Spider-Man).
The runtime for “Ben Mendelsohn” is only 25 minutes with credits, enough time that Berg and Hader could have squeezed in a bombshell or two, but were smart enough to know what to focus on. The road ahead for everyone on the show is bound to be full of twists and turns, but this week’s episode at least spent some much needed quality time inside their heads, a great reminder that Barry wouldn’t be as great as it is without emotionally resonant characters at its center.
Barry will air new episodes on HBO Sundays at 10pm